I wrote this for a writing group holiday reading party. now it is yours.
by Joshua R. English
On one hand, Raina was larger than the average woman, not overweight so much as oversized. Her boyfriend had rekeyed their condo and kept the dog. No note, no voicemail, not even a text. She had no car or housing, only a glimmer of Christmas. She could do the job. She needed the job.
On the other hand, no one had heard of a woman playing Santa at the mall.
Mrs. Claus was just standing around serving warmed-over brownies and watered down eggnog. That wasn’t what she wanted. Her life was out of control and she needed to control just this little bit. She needed to play Santa.
“Our beards aren’t the best,” the Rent-a-Santa man said. “And the voice. Kids can tell.”
“Ho ho ho,” she said.
“How the hell does a woman make that sound?”
“I sang tenor in college. I’m down on my luck, mister. This is the only way I’m going to get a little bit of Christmas into my life. One weekend. That’s all I ask.”
“I have a small gig in a strip mall on Saturday. They don’t expect a lot of people, and it’s out in Hillsboro. Can you get there?”
Only if Trimet is running that day, she thought. “Absolutely,” she said.
“Choose a suit from the wardrobe. Take it home, wear it around, get used to it. These things are hot. Load up on vitamin C and buy a gallon of hand sanitizer. I can’t supply it, but it’s tax-deductible.”
The wardrobe was a small office lined with Santa suits. Even the shortest suit was too tall. She had the voice, she had the shoulders, could find the belly, but she wasn’t going to grow six inches overnight. It was either frumpy Santa or no Santa. Frumpy won. As she lifted the best she could get from the hanger, she noticed an old fashioned clothes chest behind the rack. She pushed her way to it and opened it, half expecting to find a reindeer corpse or desiccated elf mummies.
Inside was a suit. A thin suit. Threadbare but small. She shook it out and held it against her body. It was the right length. It looked like it could be too small. She shook it again and the suit felt larger, enough to fit around her.
She took off her jacket and put on the red coat over her tee shirt.
She was in a house she didn’t recognize, in a room lit only by flashing red, blue, and green lights. Her shadow, heavy plump and bearded, flickered against a wall of family portraits. She dropped the half empty bag she’d been carrying. A gasp. A young girl, wearing a Thor the god of thunder shirt down to her knees, watched her.
The girl’s mouth flickered with the lights between a smile and horror.
“Let’s get you to bed,” she said, her voice a baritone whisper. “Before you end up on the naughty list for peeking.”
Raina picked up the girl in her gloved hands and carried her up the stairs. The girl fell asleep instantly, like she had an off switch. Raina knew which bedroom was right, and tucked the girl back into bed.
She stood, her hand brushing a now-bulging pocket. Inside she found a stuffed toy reindeer. She tucked this into bed, too, and the girl wrapped her arms around it.
“Ho Ho Ho.”
She woke up in her hotel room. Not Saturday. Not yet. She patted herself down. No belly. Normal breasts. No beard. The suit hung by itself on a hook by the door. The boots on the floor and the gloves resting on top. The clock told her she only had a few minutes to grab a free continental bagel and orange juice.
The news was a constant fixture on the lobby television. She was alone, noshing, sipping, watching the reports of mysterious presents appearing under trees when she, suddenly and without warning, felt giddy. True childlike glee and giggles. Police and bomb squads were out checking packages and rather chagrined to find toys under the silver wrapping paper with candy cane stripe ribbons. The talking heads debated the possibility of Santa Claus being real. She sat all day, watching, transfixed. She ate a dinner out of a vending machine and went back into her room to put on the suit.
Saturday morning felt like she had been run over by something large and alcoholic. She moved only when she could force her entire will on the act. She still made it to the lobby in time for breakfast, and had a nagging feeling that something was horribly wrong. She barely recognized the news of twenty-foot Christmas trees appearing fully decorated in the middle of homeless camps, the silver and candy-cane ribbon packages loaded with food and blankets and books and clothes. The homeless population never looked better dressed.
The national news ran similar stories of silver boxes appearing under trees all over the country. People interviewed on the street said they had purchased gifts for random strangers. Toy drives and food drives were overflowing. Raina considered volunteering to help store it all at the local food bank, but her feet rebelled.
On Fox, they insisted that these events were a secret government program softening up the population for the mass surveillance state, or a massive terrorist attack. And Santa was a litterbug who needed to be stopped.
Saturday night. Five days before Christmas Eve. Raina could feel it happening, appearing in more homes than she thought possible, more children, more toys, more kitchen gadgets. Her bag never empty, and strangely never full. No reindeer but the echo of jingling when she moved from place to place, until the place she never thought she’d see again.
Her condo. Her ex’s condo. A small tree sat by the window. The pile of presents was small, with tags from his mother and sister, and tags to the dog. Best to get this over with, she thought, and reached for the bag to open it.
The bag was empty.
She checked again. It had never needed a magic word to work, so she couldn’t think of any to try.
It remained empty.
She couldn’t leave. She felt that it would be impossible until she left something but she had nothing.
She walked into the bedroom, bracing herself for bad news. He was there, sleeping, one hand under his head, the other on top of his stomach. The dog took up her side of the bed.
She had assumed there was someone else. If no one, then why? It didn’t matter. He wanted to be free.
She bent over him and kissed him goodbye.
On Monday morning she was fully awake, charged up like a really good cup of coffee had settled in. She showered before her continental bagel and OJ. She felt ready to conquer everything, including, especially, returning the suit. She hadn’t done the job she’d been hired to do. Packing up the suit and preparing for a good yelling-at and no paycheck, she returned to the Rent-a-Santa.
Last week it had been a small office with a short chubby unshaven man. Now it was a bookstore. It had always been a bookstore.
She browsed the shelves and it was clear the books had been there a while. She had enough cash in her wallet to buy a book that her ex had mentioned wanting but never bought for himself, and–this being Portland–a stuffed Jack London dog toy.
Outside, she hefted the purchases in one hand. She had no easy way to give them. In the other hand she held the bag with the suit in it.
There were still four giving-days until Christmas.
Thank you for reading. Have a Merry Christmas
Today’s Gospel is Matthew 11:2-11. This is the story of John in prison sending his disciples to Jesus to ask “are you, like, the Dude, or what?” [Obvious paraphrase from The Bible for the Laid Back]. Jesus says a lot of things about the blind seeing and the deaf hearing and lame walking and the poor having good news for a change, but in paraphrase:
Jesus waved his arms to those around him and said, “dudes…”
But the second time I heard this story, I kept thinking that this was a really dumb question for John to ask in the first place. He was Jesus’ cousin. He knew who Jesus was (Matthew 3:14-15). He knew who Jesus was in the womb (The BLB skims the birth narratives, but more reliable translations do not).
So why would John question this? It is possible that he heard the stories of a new prophet running around while he was sitting in a rock room with stale hay for a bed. Maybe he didn’t know if the stories were about Jesus or someone else. The jews were on the lookout for a messiah to save them from the occupation, after all. So one solution is that John sent his disciples to find out if this was Jesus, and those desciples should have known better, too, if they had witnessed the baptism of Jesus.
But instead, I think John heard those stories and knew who it was and what it was all about and thought “finally that lathe-turning waffler is getting busy.” (It may not be fair to think of our Lord and Savior in these terms, but a cousin is a cousin.) But John’s disciples come to him and talk about this interloper, preaching about the Kingdom of God and getting it wrong, ignoring the fact that John was pretty deliberate about the “one who comes next” was going to be different. Of course the one John foretold was going to be different that John.
So my question was this: Why would John surround himself with dimwits.
A better question came to mind: Why would Jesus surround himself with dimwits? The Apostles just don’t get it. Jesus is always correcting them when they tell him to send away the poor and sick, or when they ask if they should send lightning to smite people who doubt Jesus, or when they get scared when a wave rocks their boat. (Fishermen!)
Then I came up with a theory: Jesus surrounded himself with these dimwits to serve as an attitude check. Jesus was fully human. To say He didn’t have human desires is to deny something fundamental about being human. He knew temptation, he got tired, he got cranky. I’m willing to bet that when he went out to the desert and Satan said “rock the world, little dude, but worship me instead and I’ll grease the wheels” Jesus thought about it. Jesus didn’t just say “thanks but no bro” but gave it thought.
Jesus knows that Easy doesn’t work. Hard works. Satan offered Easy Mode and Jesus said:
“Dude, I got this,” and dope-slapped Satan on the back of his head.
When I was in tech support hell, working in a cube farm and tethered to a phone dealing with people who didn’t have an upper-left-hand-corner of their screen or broke their computer’s drink holder or couldn’t double click an icon without moving it around the screen, I got frustrated. This is understandable and a hazard of the job.
I was at my most patient with the people who got a full ten minutes into the call before admitting their power was out which is why they called on their cell phone when I was sitting over the half wall from someone who constantly lost his cool. Every call was followed by a litany of insults about the lack of common sense or evolutionary progress of his latest caller. Every time he went off, muting his phone mid call to utter a stream of profanity into his headset, I found myself getting more patient with my callers. I am impatient, but next to a truly unhinged impatient cube-dweller, I am Job.
I think Jesus was like that, too. He surrounded himself with dimwits who overreacted to the littlest thing to remind himself of what he shouldn’t be like. When the apostles said “if you dine with one more tax collector I’m out of here” Jesus doubled his resolve to find a tax collector and be nice to them.
John sent his dimwits to see Jesus for themselves.
Surrounding Himself with extreme examples of his own human faults, Jesus knew how to avoid them.
So must we, as Christians, practice good responses to a frustrating and frightening world. We must push ourselves to respond with Love to Hate, Peace to War, Hope to Anger. Let the evils of the world fertilize our love and strength to make the world a better place.
You know, like Jesus told us to when he said,
“Never say ‘sucks to be you,’ because that’s just not cool with God, all right? You wanna live in a bette world? Do better by it.”
This experiment has not been a successful one, but I know the external factors that led up to this failure: The election took a lot of wind out my sails. OryCon slowed me down, but no more than the other days.
The internal failures were consistency: I scheduled a 6-7 am writing hour every day and didn’t follow the schedule for a whole week in despair; and I often didn’t get up on the weekends to write. I didn’t make up that writing time, either.
The other internal failure was tracking my progress. I decided to write this one non-linearly. I had a rough outline of what I needed to write and let my mood for each day dictate which scene I worked on. This made for some good writing sessions and for some good drafts. When I knew what I needed to write and let myself go, I wrote fast. 1,800 words in one hour is pretty good, and rereading that material confirms for me that it’s not crap. I think it will hold up through edits.
The not-so-good sessions happened when I wasn’t sure exactly what would happen in the scene and had to pants it a little too much. I also let the despair of the world invade my space, and the despair of being twelve years into this with six sales for maybe $30 total on my biography. The endless stream of rejections has stopped because I gave up submitting. I have no critique group and no beta readers. I have no feedback community. All of these things came into my morning hour and all of them slowed me down.
Because I wrote this out of sequence, my nightly task was to organize the text in a separate file, already prepared with 18 chapters that just needed to be filled in. I did not review my daily work, copy it to the appropriate channel, and take notes. So while my daily writing practice has been somewhat successful and consistent, it has not been a focused writing review. There has been a loss of intention in the process. The best book to every explain zen to me is Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo. I need to re-read this book to re-connect with the content, but I remember something about focused practice, playing with a focus in mind, and I frequently spent my first few waking minutes deciding what to write that day.
Instead, I should have gone to bed knowing what I was going to write, letting my brain sort out the best phrases and the coolest images. On the days this worked, it worked well. I went to bed trying to sort out a Lovecraftian dream sequence and I was able to get up the next day and crank it out. It is not as pretty as I’d like, but it surprised me.
That is something else that did work this year: I surprised myself by my own writing. I invented a character on day two that has to be there in the in the opening chapters, but she never showed up in the outline. A second character showed up as well, brand new and unnamed (like my first-person narrator) and he needs to exist for world building purposes. I didn’t know he was there, and he’s only in one scene but I think he plays a vital role in shoving my guy through the portal this fantasy deals with.
Overall, I think the non-linear technique worked from an inspiration standpoint. Now I need to focus on the process around my writing hour to keep track of the story as a whole.
I asked several published authors about non-linear writing and none of them do this. They can start at the beginning and work their way through. They’ve also written lots and lots of books and sold or self-pubbed them, so their processes are probably kink-free. I’m still reinventing myself, losing focus on the longer stories in front of me and trying to re-write the longer stories behind me.
So I will keep on with the morning routine, and try to keep the weekends in the routine, and I will work on the evening side of things doing the necessary paperwork.
And one day, maybe, I’ll submit a story for rejection.
At OryCon and getting some good practical stuff on writing and process, and some silly stuff that involved losing a rhyming challenge. Ah well. I have fallen into the trap on not writing fiction, which seems to be a constant in my life but it always has that extra special sting during NaNoWriMo.
This year I am finding inspiration in my simple desire to be a panelist. I have to check myself from kibitzing through panel after panel after panel. It’s worse when I know the real panelists personally. I like to teach and help other people that’s what I think I’m doing when I’m just being that guy who’s going to help you fill out or ConBingo card.
So to mollify my need to pontificate, and to help myself get a framework of my own process for writing and editing, I’m going to work on a series of essays about writing that follow two basic tracks: The Reader’s Journey and The Writer’s Journey.
The Reader’s Journey is the creation of the writer for; the Writer’s Journey is the process of creating that journey.
I’m planning several essays and tying them together. Hopefully this can tie into my old Better Writing Through Reading series.
Hopefully this will help get me writing again.
This morning the plan was to get up at 6, make a cup of coffee, and start writing for NaNoWriMo. My body decided that I needed to be up at 5:30, but I wasn’t aware of the time and after failing to fall asleep, got up about ten till six and made my coffee and managed to start writing by 6:08. Not bad.
One hour later I heard Stephanie up and about and so I called it a day and checked my word count: 1,714.
That had to be wrong. I don’t write that fast. Yes, I’m a fast typist but I average 1,000 wph when drafting. I have a new computer. It’s possible the program I’m using (Focus Writer, damn fine tool) wasn’t calculating it correctly. It’s possible something went wrong with the file. I opened it LibreOffice and it confirmed the count.
On the way to work, Stephanie and I went through the mental math to figure it out: I hit “flow”. I found that spot where I could just keep on writing at a steady pace without worry. We figured I was going at about 30 wpm, which is a slow typing speed. It’s maybe 2 to 3 keystrokes per second. If that pace is kept up and consistent, 1,800 words in an hour is feasible. The scary thing is this means if I was really on fire and really knew what I wanted to say I could get 3K in an hour, and that seems ridiculous. It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to do the math all over again.
30 wpm @ 5 cpw = 150 kpm = 2.5 kps. (@ 6 cpw = 180 kpm = 3 kps.)
30 wpm × 60 m = 1,800 words.
Shockingly, this works.
I am taking a different tactic this year. Usually I start at the beginning and crap out mid-way through. After extensive work with Mark Teppo’s Planning, Plotting, and Progress I have a pretty good idea of the pace of the novella and where things need to happen. This year I decided to start right after the midway point where the standard plot crisis occurs. I don’t plan on writing this thing in order, which should help solve my perennial problem of not knowing what happens next.
So, with a sample size of one day, I’m going to look forward to NaNoWriMo this year and I think I’ll have a successful year.
The “American Commons” is a phrase I use to describe my ideal political party, although at this point it’s really about being in full support of Democracy as opposed to Oligarchy or Monarchy. One of the things we need to do, as a country but also at every level down to the neighborhood, is apply Democracy to the election process. One way to do this is to publicly finance campaigns, letting each serious candidate draw from a stipend during the official three-month campaign season and have the state buy advertisement slots which can be distributed evenly among those candidates.
In the meantime, we have Measure 26-184, which puts strict restrictions on how much any individual can donate to a county-level campaign. To win broad appeal, political figures will need to make a broad appeal instead of getting one or two special interests with deep pockets behind them. I am for this measure.
I believe that we will not be able to fix any political process problem until we get the effect of big money out. I know many wealthy people prefer anonymity, but they still manage to turn the world to their personal liking. See Gawker Media for the latest example of someone imposing their will on thousands of other people just because he could afford to do it.
As I also noted on Facebook yesterday, this year’s pamphlet seems low on arguments and those arguments are very one sided. Measure 26-184, however, has a great argument in opposition. There is only one argument in opposition, and it is well worth the read.
The online version can be found here (PDF version). The argument in question is on page 35 of the online document.
Thanks to Hamilton, most Americans know a story of Aaron Burr. Burr does not always act to better his position, but waits for someone to realize his virtue and give him status. When he does decide to make a move to get into “the room where it happens” he finds the last available seat is taken up by Alexander Hamilton.
Imagine (or remember) a time when the only way to learn about new movies was to read the news paper (which came to your door every single day) and scan the ads. Sometimes there was a movie reviewer, and some times an ad on TV, and sometimes schoolyard scuttlebutt. You are twelve years old. You see a bunch of movies that look good (they aren’t, but you’re twelve! What do you know?) and you look forward to a whole summer of catching movies.
Then a new rating comes out: PG-13. You may be allowed in, but you hear society telling you “wait until you’re older”.
A few years later you get into college, because a college education is the way to a good job and financial independence. Then a ballot measure to limit property taxes goes up and your per-credit costs triple in a year and your books get five times more expensive. You hear “wait a little longer” for financial independence.
Then you enter the work force just as people push to raise the retirement age, keeping the best jobs in the hands of the more experienced workers for longer. You hear “wait a little longer” for job promotions.
You work and start to think about retirement, and are told that social security is going to be gone, or you’ll have to wait longer to see any benefits, or work well past the retirement age to build a nest egg stable enough to retire on.
You end up thinking your 65th year will see a rash of “mandatory retirement” movements that kick you out of the workforce with an estimated thirty years to live and only the savings for ten, and you really can’t work anymore.
This is what I think about when I read Measure 94. The measure would remove the mandatory retirement age of 75 for our justices. Not replace, mind you: remove.
There are no arguments in opposition.
The argument in support is that no other government position has mandatory requirements, and we have a new way of looking at age, so 75 isn’t seen as “old” anymore. This is a fair argument.
On the other hand, it also makes younger people “wait” for a chance to be elected to the judiciary if that’s what they want.
I suspect I will vote for it, only because my only argument against it that I can come up with is the wallow of self-pity for my generation. The only thing that could make me vote against it is if any of our judicial positions at the state level were lifetime terms like the US Supreme Court. This page claims this is not the case in our state, so I guess I have no reason not to vote for it, and voting for it adds an element of consistency to our state government.
Afterword: This page (An Introduction to the Courts of Oregon) has a lot of good information about how our courts currently operate.